When prehistoric hunters first dipped their arrows in snake venom, we turned nature’s toxic gifts against one another for the first time in history. It would not be the last.
Over the centuries, different lethal concoctions have been in vogue, and the popular pick was generally whatever could be plucked off the local herbalist or apothecary’s shelves. “A poison in a small dose is a medicine,” said Alfred Swaine Taylor, a 19th century toxicologist, “and a medicine in a large dose is a poison.”
Classic poisons like hemlock, nightshade, aconite, foxglove, opium, and strychnine were used to treat a range of ails, from the humble head cold to heart conditions, and even worn as makeup. Toxic metals like mercury, lead, and arsenic were ingredients in medicines lining pharmacy shelves as late as the 20th century.
For as long as we’ve needed to cure, we’ve also been tempted to kill—and poison has provided the means.
KINGS OF POISON, POISON OF KINGS
Since the beginning, poison has been a murderous tool for emperors, pharaohs, and kings.
Around 1550 B.C., Egyptians scribbled numerous recipes for poison in hieroglyphics in the Ebers Papyrus, one of the earliest medical documents. It’s believed the first known Egyptian pharaoh, Menes, experimented with deadly toxins, as did the last, Cleopatra, who supposedly took her own life with a poison asp.
Experimenting with poison killed the father of Chinese herbal medicine, Shen Nung—he sampled 365 herbs before dying of an overdose—as well as the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang. The ancient civilizations of India, Persia, and Greece used poison to assassinate rivals for political gain (Mughal rulers would “gift” their enemies with poison-lined robes), to execute criminals (Socrates was sentenced to drink poison Hemlock), and even to offer the sick and elderly the gift of a quick death.
By Roman times, poisoning had run so rampant that the “Lex Cornelia,” an ancient Roman law, was issued outright forbidding toxic tinctures—but the problem only grew. Six Roman emperors met their end due to poison, including Claudius, who was murdered by his own wife, Agrippina, to advance the position of her son Nero, who then turned around and poisoned his stepbrother in order to take the throne.
Pick Your Poison
People in ancient and medieval times had many poisons to choose from.
A favorite of the ancient Greeks, poison hemlock comes from a large fern-like plant that bears a dangerous resemblance to the carrot plant. It was readily available for treating muscle spasms, ulcers, and swelling, but in large doses will cause paralysis and ultimately respiratory failure. In Athens it was the drug of choice for capital punishment, known as “State Poison.”
This storied plant gets its name from the long, vaguely human-shaped root. It was used as a sedative, hallucinogen, and aphrodisiac. Superstitious medieval denizens believed that when the vaguely human-shaped root was pulled out, the plant gave a piercing shriek that would drive anyone that heard it to madness—or death.
A main ingredient in witches’ brews, a single leaf or a few berries of Nightshade could cause hallucinations—a few more was a lethal dose. Medieval women used the juice of the berries to color their cheeks. They would even put a few drops on their eyes to cause the pupils to dilate for a lovestruck look. That’s why this deadly poison is also called belladonna, or “beautiful woman.”
This toxic plant, also called Monkshood or Wolfsbane, was used by indigenous tribes around the world as arrow poison, and was so deadly that growing it was forbidden in ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages, aconite was one of the ingredients in a potion used by witches to give them the feeling of flying.
Derived from a bitter-tasting tree native to India, this toxin was known since antiquity in Asia and was used in many traditional medicines. It eventually made its way to the West in the 1700s where it became a rat poison. A lethal dose causes muscle contractions and ultimately death by respiratory arrest.
But no king was as haunted by poison than King Mithridates VI, who ruled Pontos (modern Turkey) over 2,000 years ago. Terrified of being assassinated with poison (a phobia not unwarranted considering his mother had poisoned his father), Mithridates became obsessed with finding a universal antidote, so much so that history remembers him as the “Poison King.”
The king tried to build up his tolerance by consuming tiny amounts of different toxins along with various experimental antidotes. He eventually devised a top-secret recipe known as the “mithridatum,” which was highly coveted for years to come. The elixir remained a mystery until the Roman general Pompey invaded Pontos and took the precious cure-all back to Rome. In a cruel irony, Mithridates tried to use poison to commit suicide during Pompey’s invasion—but it failed to kill him. One of his soldiers had to be tasked to finish the deed.
Fast forward 800 years and the story of poison would change forever. One of the great thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, produced a deadly white powder that was odorless, tasteless, and totally undetectable in the human body. It was a lethal compound of arsenic, a naturally occurring and ubiquitous element that becomes toxic when converted to arsenic trioxide, or white arsenic.
Arsenic kills by disrupting energy transfer to the cells, which begin to die off and cause basic bodily functions to break down. With a high enough dose, or if consumed gradually over time, vital organs will start to fail. This creeping sickness looked a lot like natural illness, especially since the usual symptoms, vomiting and diarrhea, were easily mistaken for cholera, dysentery, and other common diseases of the time.
Over the next millennia, arsenic made it possible, even easy, to commit the perfect crime. Not only could the powder be mixed into a glass of wine or food unnoticed—if carefully dosed, it could take hours, days, or even months for any symptoms to show, making it very hard to trace. Even if poison was suspected, up until the 19th century there was no way to detect arsenic in the body after death.
But what made arsenic so deadly was that it was also incredibly easy to get your hands on. For centuries, civilizations used its compounds medicinally. It was used in Chinese medicine, by the Greek physician Hippocrates, by medieval alchemists in search of the elixir of life, and by 18th-century doctors who turned to an arsenic-based solution to treat everything from asthma to syphilis.
As a lethal toxin, the discrete and deadly metalloid became the weapon of choice for those looking to quietly dispose of anyone standing in their way. Arsenic was a common way of tampering with the natural line of succession, and it was so effective, a plague of poison swept across the wealthy nations of the world for centuries.
Europe in the Middle Ages was marked with superstition. After the fall of the Roman Empire, knowledge progressed very little over the next several centuries, and folklore, religious beliefs, and magic took its place. Not so in the Arab world, where science and math flourished. Building on the texts of the Greek philosophers, many Islamic scientists and physicians experimented with poisons and antidotes, writing influential texts that hugely advanced the field of toxicology.
This wealth of knowledge didn’t reach the West until the 13th century, but Christian monks did little more than methodically copy these ancient texts. So medieval Europe had no more of a clue than Mithridates on how to protect against poisons—but they feared them more than ever. With no scientific remedies to turn to, peasants, traders, and kings turned to more magical solutions.
Bezoar stones are solid masses of undigested food or fibers found in the stomach of animals—just the thing, people (erroneously) thought, to drop into a drink to neutralize the effects of any poison. Bezoars were popular in Persia and other parts of Asia and were eventually traded into Europe.
Others “cures” included talismans, amulets, or “anti-poison” goblets lined with minerals to induce vomiting. In the courts of dynastic China and the kingdoms of Korea, people used silver chopsticks to test for poison in their food and drinks.
But the apex of all unlikely antidotes was the prized “unicorn” horn. The mythical beast’s long, ivory horns (which were actually narwhal tusks) were thought to both detect and protect against poison. Unicorn horns were extremely coveted and cost a small fortune, worth 10 times more than gold. These precious tusks were found in royal palaces all across Europe. In Denmark, generations of rulers were even crowned on a throne chair made of the mythical horn.
Unicorn horns eventually fell out of fashion as the Renaissance brought a resurgence of scientific study to Europe. But that increased knowledge of poisons also made them more deadly as some people became better at using them. As Europe finally exited the Dark Ages, concocting increasingly potent potions became an art, and just like the other Renaissance art forms, the craft was mastered in Italy.
A POISON RENAISSANCE
In the streets of Florence, Rome, and Venice—poison was booming.
Alchemists were busy brewing tonics in search of eternal life, and “schools” of study sprung up working to perfect the art of poison. In Venice, the contract assassins in the ominous “Council of Ten” organization poisoned people for a fee. And in Rome, one ambitious family mastered the art.
The Borgia family wasn’t afraid to kill to hold onto its powerful position in the Catholic clergy. Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), his son Duke Cesare, and his daughter Lucrecia are infamous for poisoning dozens of cardinals, bishops, and nobles (though historians now think Lucrecia may have been wrongly accused). Witnessing this state of affairs, the Venetian ambassador reported “every night four or five men are discovered assassinated. Bishops, prelates, and others, so that all Rome trembles for fear of being murdered by the Duke.”
The family experimented with strychnine, aconite, and other toxins on animals and the poor, and kept their vials in the basement along with their wines. They eventually arrived at a deadly formula known as cantarella. Its contents are a mystery to this day, though it’s thought to have been a mix of arsenic and blister beetles.
The Borgias’ modus operandi was to mix cantarella into the wine of unfortunate dinner guests, who would then turn up dead weeks or months later—a length of time carefully predetermined by the poisoner. This was executed so skillfully that “tasting the cup of the Borgias” became a euphemism for a sudden or mysterious death.
But the Borgias weren’t the only powerful clan utilizing poison for political gain. Catherine de Medici, the “Black Queen” of France, tested different poisons on animals and prisoners, and kept her deadly vials in hundreds of secret cabinets in her quarters at the royal residence.
By the end of the 16th century, a French “school” of poison was spreading this nefarious knowledge through the city of Paris, where thousands of poison practitioners were mastering the silent killer. Arsenic compounds were so commonly used to eliminate wealthy or noble members of the French bourgeoisie that the poison became known as the poudre de succession, or “inheritance powder.”
In the decadent court at Versailles, the killing reached such a treacherous level that King Louis XIV set up a tribunal specifically to investigate poison homicides. Hundreds of cases were tried, revealing a sweeping underground poison ring that reached right into the king’s inner circle.
At the center of the scandal was a fortune teller named Catherine Deshayes, better known as “La Voisin.” Pedaling a mix of arsenic, belladonna, aconite, and opium, she sold poison to many noblewomen looking to rid themselves of an unwanted child or spouse, including the king’s mistress. By the end of the inquisition, 36 people were sentenced to die and were burnt at the stake. Louis XIV finally issued a decree banning arsenic and other poisons from being sold at apothecaries on penalty of death.
In the 17th century, some ladies would powder their faces with arsenic to achieve a more pale complexion. Others used it to become widows.
In Rome in 1659, a fortune-teller sorceress named Hieronyma Spara ran a secret society that would dole out poison to women who wanted to kill their husbands. Then, there was Guilia Toffana, the infamous poison peddler behind the death of some 600 people, including two popes and countless husbands. She sold her brew of arsenic and belladonna, known as “Aqua Toffana,” in cosmetics bottles disguised as makeup. A few drops was enough to cause a slow and untraceable death.
In Paris, this troublesome trend became intertwined with a dark underworld of witchcraft and black magic. At court, women sought out powerful potions to attract lovers, remove enemies, and even terminate unwanted pregnancies.
The powdery white widow-maker also made its way across the channel. In Victorian England, arsenic was surprisingly easy to come by. A woman simply needed to walk into the chemist shop or market and hand over a few pence for some rat poison or arsenic powder to smooth her complexion.
Arsenic was much easier to obtain than a divorce, and husband-killing was more prevalent than ever because of the booming business of life insurance. Soon, the Victorian era became known as the “golden age” of arsenic poisoning. Many arsenic homicide cases became famous, such as the murderess Mary Ann Cotton, who killed three husbands—as well as one fiancé and many of her children and stepchildren—and then cashed in on the insurance.
To quash this criminal craze, the English Parliament tried to pass a law forbidding women from buying arsenic. But ultimately it was science, not the law, that ended the white powder’s reign.
Centuries after the invention of arsenic trioxide, physicians still had no idea how to treat—or even detect—arsenic poisoning. Well into the 19th century, doctors were hopelessly trying to determine whether victims had been poisoned by throwing the contents of their stomach into a fire to see if they smelled like garlic—and people were getting away with murder.
Finally, in 1836, an English chemist named James Marsh came up with a chemical method to detect minute traces of arsenic in human tissue. It was put the test in the murder trial of a French woman charged with feeding her husband arsenic cakes. She was proven guilty.
Arsenic poisoning dropped off significantly with the development of the Marsh Test, which scientists improved and used as forensic evidence of poisoning for the next century, ushering in the era of modern toxicology.
POISON GOES TO WAR
Humans first began using poison in warfare thousands of years ago. The indigenous people of South America used plant extracts and venomous frogs to create poison darts. The Scythians, nomadic tribes of the Central Asian steppe, were famous for their poison arrowheads, as were the Indians who used them against the army of Alexander the Great.
The ancient Chinese, Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Mongols also used toxic gas (usually burning sulfur) to smoke out the enemy. In the 7th century, the Byzantines introduced “Greek Fire,” a terrifying burning liquid often described as “ancient napalm.” The chemicals could float on water and would burn people alive in their wooden ships. Inevitably, poison was also added to a new weapon invented in China in the 9th century: gunpowder.
But the rise of industry made it possible for nations to produce and stockpile chemical weapons on an unprecedented scale. The danger in deadly gases was so innately understood that these weapons were banned before they were ever used. But Pandora’s box was opened, and it released a toxic cloud across the Earth.
At sunset on April 22, 1915, the German army opened 168 tons of chlorine gas over the bomb-pocked battlefield in Ypres, Belgium. A Canadian officer later described it as a “deadly wall of gas” that “rolled slowly over the ground turning the budding leaves of the trees, the spring flowers, and the grass a sickly white.” The wind carried the yellow-green vapor toward the Allied trenches, where troops stood waiting for the shooting to begin.
Instead, they felt a hot burning sensation in the eyes and throat. The poison gas caused intense pain, blindness, and the feeling of being strangled. Over 5,000 troops were killed by asphyxiation.
The gas was developed by the German-Jewish chemist Fritz Haber, a brilliant scientist with a tortured legacy. Haber won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for discovering a way to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen in the air, enabling the mass production of a nitrogen fertilizer that revolutionized agriculture and helped feed billions of people around the globe.
But during World War I, Haber enthusiastically applied his talents to what he called a “higher form of killing.” A fervent patriot, he said “in peace-time the scientist belongs to humanity, in war-time to his fatherland.”
Haber personally oversaw the deployment of chlorine gas at Ypres, and in the chemical weapons arms race that followed, he led the development of even more deadly chemicals: mustard gas, a painful blistering agent, and phosgene, a choking agent that not only burns the body but can also induce psychological terror.
By the end of World War I, there were an estimated 1.2 million casualties caused by chemical weapons. After the gas attack at Ypres, Haber was hailed as a hero in Berlin, and a party was thrown in his honor a month after the battle.
But others were horrified by the introduction of poison to warfare—including Haber’s wife, the renowned chemist Clara Immerwahr. She called it “a sign of barbarity, corrupting the very discipline which ought to bring new insights into life.” The night of the party, Clara shot herself in the heart.
When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, Haber came under attack for his Jewish heritage. He fled Germany in 1933 and died of a heart attack while in exile. Not long after, his lab and research were used by the Nazis to develop Zyklon B, the poison gas used to murder millions of Jews and other innocent civilians in gas chambers at concentration camps—including members of Haber’s extended family.
A COLD WAR KILLER
Poison played another, altogether different role in the wars of the 20th century: as a suicide pill.
A chemical compound that can take the form of gas or crystalline powder, cyanide is one of the most potent and fast-acting poisons in existence. While cyanide has been known since antiquity, a compound of hydrogen cyanide distilled in the 18th century quickly gained attention for its ability to kill with efficiency. It became the drug of choice for suicide during World War II and and the Cold War.
The tactic was used by many Nazi leaders at the end of World War II. Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun poisoned themselves with cyanide in a bunker in Berlin. Later, Hermann Göring killed himself to avoid execution during the Nuremberg Trials by biting a cyanide pill hidden in his mouth.
Cyanide also became almost synonymous with the suicide pills made famous by spy movies. And while there’s little truth to the pop-culture trope of the cyanide tooth, the CIA and KGB did give spies L-pills (L for “lethal”) to avoid being tortured and spilling state secrets if they were caught. The drug was hidden in secret compartments in the stem of eyeglasses or fountain pens, and chewing on these objects would release the poison.
How Cyanide Kills So Fast
Although it depends on the amount and method of exposure, cyanide poisoning is one of the quickest ways to kill. But how does it achieve these deadly results in such a short amount of time?
Cyanide attacks the very cells that make life possible, specifically the mitochondria and its electron transport chain. Known as the cell’s powerhouse, mitochondria is responsible for cellular respiration and produces energy, known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP), from oxygen. The mitochondria needs a specific enzyme called cytochrome oxidase to make this possible.
But when cyanide enters the mix, things go downhill—fast. The cyanide ion binds to this enzyme, and blocks it from doing its life-giving job. Once the cells can no longer use oxygen, things deteriorate quickly, the most likely cause of death being respiratory or heart failure. Because of that small, lethal cyanide ion, the human body experiences chemical asphyxiation (also known as histotoxic hypoxia) within minutes.
Cyanide was the poison fed to Rasputin that famously failed to kill him (a gunshot finished the job). In the late 1950s, a spray gun that fired a cloud of poison cyanide gas was used by a former KGB agent to assassinate two Ukrainian nationalist leaders. And in 1978, potassium cyanide was mixed into fruit punch in the Jonestown mass murder-suicide in Guyana.
In recent years, nerve agents, highly toxic “organophosphates” like Sarin gas, have become poisons of choice. Originally developed during World War II, these deadly concoctions have been used by terrorists, dictators, and authoritarians around the world, leading to sinister political plots that would’ve made for sleepless nights for Mithridates some 2,000 years ago.
popularmechanics.com, 4 October 2020